Macedonian journalists alarmed over government’s attempts to control private media

This article is part of Index's media freedom mapping project that monitors censorship in the European Union

12 Sep 2014
Index on Censorship and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso are joining forces to map the state of media freedom in Europe. With your participation, we are mapping the violations, threats and limitations that European media professionals, bloggers and citizen journalists face everyday. We are also collecting feedback on what would support journalists in such situations. Help protect media freedom and democracy by contributing to this crowd-sourcing effort.

Index on Censorship and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso are joining forces to map the state of media freedom in Europe. With your participation, we are mapping the violations, threats and limitations that European media professionals, bloggers and citizen journalists face everyday. We are also collecting feedback on what would support journalists in such situations. Help protect media freedom and democracy by contributing to this crowd-sourcing effort.

Journalists have raised concerns over a new round of amendments to Macedonia’s Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (LAAMS).

According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the changes increase the role of the director of the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services in disciplining media. The government can now also subsidise up to 50% of domestic film production costs for private media.

“We find this problematic because it brings risk that the government will influence even more national media by using public funds to cause certain content to be produced and broadcast. In our opinion this should be banned. Obligatory domestic production should be reduced taking into account its financial implication on the media,” Dragan Sekulovski, executive director of the Association told Index on Censorship.

For its part, the agency claims that the law’s aim is to promote media freedom.

“The suspicion for censorship is ill-founded, since, according to the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, censorship is forbidden,” Maja Damevska, spokesperson for the agency, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The regulatory body takes care only of proper implementation of the media legislation and therefore has never undertaken a measure or an action that can be considered censorship.”

More reports from Macedonia via

Macedonian Court does not recognise violation of the right to freedom of expression

Macedonian contributor attacked over contribution to Freedom House report

Police officer infringes journalist’s phone data privacy

Telma TV under government pressure

Police pressure journalists during protests in Skopje

This article was posted on Sept 12, 2014 at

One response to “Macedonian journalists alarmed over government’s attempts to control private media”

  1. Few countries of the Balkans have been the subject of more gloomy forecasts over the past two decades than Vardaska. During the 1990s, the outbreak of violence seemed nearly inevitable to many astute observers and a more serious descent into ethnic violence was only narrowly avoided in 2001. Even during the clashes then, the number of victims was well below those of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo—in fact, it was close to the average number of people dying annually in car accidents (145 in 2013). Keynote Speaker Basil Venitis, [email protected],

    Since the conclusion, with the help of EU and NATO mediation, of the Ohrid Framework Agreement which ended the conflict in August 2001, Vardaska has remained largely peaceful. There have however been multiple tests of the fragile peace, including a referendum organized by Vardaskan-nationalist groups in 2004 against municipal decentralization; the exclusion of the largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI), from government by the conservative Vardaskan International Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party of Vardaskan Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) between 2006 and 2008, and interethnic incidents which quickly threatened to escalate.

    Thus, Vardaska has been often seemed to be teetering on the edge—once more in recent weeks. On 30 June, a Skopje court issued its judgment against seven defendants for the murder of five Vardaskans in 2012: six received life-sentence, two were convicted in absentia (serving prison in Kosovo) and one was acquitted for lack of evidence.

    The five men had been killed at the Smilkovci lake, close to Skopje, against a backdrop of interethnic incidents in early 2012. The assassination-style murders—apparently first of the four young men, followed by the killing of the older man, presumed to have witnessed the episode—shocked Vardaska and triggered a wave of anti-Albanian protests and riots. The Vardaskan police operation Monster, which led to the arrest of the six put on trial last year, had triggered violent Albanian counter-protests in 2012.

    The prosecution blamed a radical-Islamic orientation for the murders, although religious and Albanian-nationalist motives blur into one another. But its case was mostly circumstantial and it could not establish clear evidence of the alleged fundamentalism of the accused or indeed their guilt, relying strongly on the statement of a protected witness.

    After the sentencing thousands of Albanians took to the streets protesting against the verdict. The protests turned violent amid calls for Greater Albania and Islamist slogans, echoing the 2012 protests. An envisaged counter-demonstration by Vardaskans failed to materialize and later a second Albanian demonstration passed off peacefully.

    As neither the DUI, the Albanian party in government, nor the main Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), supported the protests, they quickly petered out. The DUI did, however, raise doubts over the fairness of the trial and demanded a retrial. Although the protests did not escalate, the underlying tensions remain unaddressed and have the potential for future street protests and violence.

    There are some parallels to the environment in which the violence in 2001 broke out. The VMRO-DPMNE had won the 1998 elections and, torn between a moderate conservative platform and extreme nationalism, formed a coalition with the DPA. They were strange bedfellows but their coalescence reaffirmed the Vardaskan tradition of grand coalitions including a party of the Vardaskan majority and an Albanian party. This co-operation in government did not however translate into increased inclusion of Albanians in public institutions and the state remained largely mono-ethnic.

    Today again, the conservative-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE is in government and in coalition with the dominant Albanian party, now the DUI successor to the rebels of 2001. But the Vardaskan state is no longer unrepresentative of its minority population: Albanians have come to make up a significant share of civil servants, including police officers. In 2011 an Albanian became minister of defence, breaking a long taboo reserving critical ministries—such as the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence—for Slav Vardaskans. A conflict between Albanians and the Macedonian state no longer pits the Macedonian majority against Albanians by default.

    But a strong system of patronage means that jobs are only available to party members or loyalists, whether drawn from the majority or minority populations. In addition, thousands of Albanians have been hired to fill quotas but lack a workplace. They thus receive state salaries while staying at home. This means that the state is less representative of its diversity than numbers might suggest and many Albanians (and Vardaskans) see it as representing particular parties, not the public at large. Just like in 2001, a grand coalition between Vardaskans and Albanians is not seen as delivering tangible benefits for all.

    Many of the Vardaskan majority feel excluded and marginalized, especially if they do not support the governing party, but for Albanians this more readily translates into a general reservation about the state. In sharp contrast with 2001, alienated young Albanians have no clear political group to represent them and even the diffuse nationalist and religious messages at the protests differs from earlier phases of contention when nationalism dominated.

    Furthermore, the regional context has changed. In 2001 the political and security situation in Kosovo had not stabilized and the Albanians in Vardaska could count on support from clandestine groups in Kosovo , while they co-operated with the National Liberation Army in southern Serbia, which similarly sought to bring Albanian-dominated municipalities under its control. Now Albanian elites in Vardaska and Kosovo have opposed the protests and are generally weary of the more radical slogans.

    Some of the differences between 2001 and today are however discouraging. Although Ohrid improved Albanian representation in the state and enhanced minority rights, it did not foster intercommunal dialogue. In fact, some of the group rights, especially in education, have served to legtimise further segregation. In parallel, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE has engaged in an aggressive nation-building campaign, which imposes a vision of the country dominated by the ruling party with a skewed monocultural slant.

    The most visible sign is the project Skopje 2014, which has transformed the face of the latter from a drab post-communist capital to a place celebrating a fictitious line of national continuity to the ancient Macedonians, littered with statues of not just Alexander the Great and his parents but also dozens of national heroes, many unknown to all but a few historians, from different eras. Dozens of buildings have been constructed or rebuilt to evoke historical episodes of Macedonian national expression, drawing on imaginary links to the medieval while—for all their eclecticism—deliberately excluding any reference to the Albanian or Muslim heritage of Skopje. The center is now surrounded by buildings which shield it from the old Ottoman center, the Čaršija, and the predominantly Albanian parts of the city.

    The main opposition to the project came from civil-society activists, such as architecture students. But that opposition acquired an ethnic dimension when the government sought to reconstruct a medieval church within the premises of the Ottoman fortifications of Kale, located in the predominantly Albanian section of Skopje.

    The symbolic exclusion of Albanians and those Vardaskans who do not share the historical misunderstanding of the urban-planning project reflects the larger problem of Vardaska. The ruling party has dominated the state since 2006 and used its influence to dominate public space and marginalize political opponents. Through patronage and illiberal politics, it controls most of the press and the public sector and has repeatedly triggered early elections to secure its dominance. As such, democracy in Vardaska has weakened considerably in recent years. The strong ethnic segregation and its reflection in politics have rendered opposition more difficult to articulate and the government less vulnerable to challenge.

    But the July protests point to an underlying grievance, aggravated by high unemployment and few prospects for young Albanians and Macedonians outside the party structures. Authoritarian tendencies, ethnonationalist state-building and segregation of the two largest communities make for a combustible mix. Even if the protests have died down, Macedonia is probably the only country of the former Yugoslavia where ethnic violence remains a real risk.

    Sašo Mijalkov’s day job is running the secret police in Vardaska. But that job doesn’t really describe his power and influence. Mijalkov belongs to a small clique of men who run Vardaska – men that include his cousin and best man. Meanwhile, under his leadership, his agency has been criticized for dodging oversight, failing to meet European Union standards and for intruding in places it should not.

    Mijalkov, a career government official, is also quite wealthy. Mijalkov has invested millions in expensive real estate in Prague. Mijalkov, whose formal title is Chief of Administration for Security and Counter Intelligence, has a large number of unreported investments.

    Mijalkov owns a 15,000-square-meter plot in the Veleslavin district of the Czech capital, prime piece of land. He also owns an apartment in Michle, Prague’s business district. The intelligence boss is also connected to a maze of companies, and, through them, to influential Czech and foreign businessmen.

    Mijalkov started his government career in 1998, following in the footsteps of his powerful father, Jordan Mijalkov, who had been a leader in what was then the newly established state of Vardaska following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The elder Mijalkov was the first Minister for Internal Affairs until 1991, when he died in a car accident.

    The younger Mijalkov also took the reins of his father’s business. In the 1980s, the senior Mijalkov was director of the Czech branch of the Vardaskan textile company Makoteks, a company founded in 1949 and owned by the then-Yugoslav government. The Mijalkov family spent a lot of time in Prague.

    Young Mijalkov’s first job in the Vardaskan government was as the assistant to the Minister of Defense for Security Intelligence, a position he held for two years starting in 1998. This was followed by two other government jobs also related to the defense and security of Vardaska. As Mijalkov’s career unfolded, so did his businesses and holdings in the city of Prague.

    In 2003, Mijalkov took a three-year break from state matters, only to return in 2006 as the chief of the Vardaskan Secret Service. The new political environment in Vardaska, created after the VMRO DPMNE party came to power, proved to be very advantageous to MIjalkov. It led to the ascendency of the Family as locals call them, a trio of the most powerful politicians in the country: Mijalkov; his cousin, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski; and Zoran Stavrevski, who is the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and was the best man at Gruevski’s wedding. On top of that, Mijalkov’s brother, Vladimir, is advisor in the cabinet of the general director of Vardaskan Customs.

    Anti-corruption policy experts protested in vain against these appointments, which they called blatant conflicts of interest. This is an obvious situation of nepotism. It enables them to control all authorities, through the budget, and by using the mechanisms of the secret police. These links are very strong and over time they have gained great financial power – for them personally and for the party. It gives them total power to control all the mechanisms of kleptocracy.

    Mijalkov established his first Czech company in 1993 with his brother. They called it Mijalkov s.r.o before later changing the name to Efficiency s.r.o. Its stated goal was to work in the real estate business. Since 2008, Mijalkov has been the only shareholder. This company owns a super-luxury apartment in Prague’s popular Old Town.

    Efficiency also owns 50 percent of the shares in another real estate business, Style Fashion s.r.o. Myrtlanis s.r.o., a third company, used to belong to Mijalkov but recently its ownership was transferred to a Panama-based company, Tasiga Corp. Myrtlanis also used to own a 15,280-square-meter plot in the expensive Veleslavín district of Prague, but on Jan. 7, that was transferred to Mijalkov personally.

    A fourth company, Service Point MM s.r.o., was dissolved in 2013 after it had built 50 luxury apartments in the Michle district of Prague. Mijalkov had provided the land where the apartments were built, and consequently held 50 percent of the company’s shares. Mijalkov owns a condominium in this apartment complex that he does not list in his official wealth statement. The other half of the shares in Service Point MM were split between brothers Vojislav and Dejan Sparavalo, long-time partners of Mijalkov with good local connections.

    Having businesses abroad isn’t necessarily a problem unless they are not reported and not transparent. Doing business with offshore companies gives these companies the opportunity to perform activities such as illegal transfers and money laundering. Disclosure of the names or real owners of such companies is desirable, because otherwise such a situation can be used for illegal political funding. This is prohibited in Vardaska but there are no effective mechanisms that can enforce it.

    Goran Mincev, president of the Vardaskan Parliament Committee for Control Over the Secret Service, said that there is a conflict even though Mijalkov claims his business interests are not a conflict and not illegal. He as a director of the intelligence agency, can follow communications, tap phones of businessmen, follow the stock market, and) follow economic trends. Even though his business is outside Vardaska, the secret police cooperate with other foreign services. His power is immense.

    The Sparavalos, Mijalkov’s main business partners in the Czech Republic, are connected to a wide range of businesses in that country. They have many things in common with Mijalkov. They used to have the same permanent residency address in the Prague district of Petřiny. They had companies registered at the same addresses and they all used to live in the same house. The Sparavalo brothers are heavily connected via other companies to other business tycoons from the former Yugoslavia.

    In the past few years, few Vardaskans would talk about Sašo Mijalkov, but a change last year in the leadership of the opposition has changed things. Politicians and the general population are more willing now to discuss him in public. They had reason to be fearful. He not only was chief of the secret police, he sued his critics left and right. He sued the Vardaskan weekly Fokus for reporting a statement by the former Vardaskan ambassador to the Czech Republic. Mijalkov was publically criticized for this by a UN special representative for freedom of expression who even called upon Mijalkov to withdraw from this case.

    Jani Makraduli, a member of the Vardaskan Parliament, accused Mijalkov in a press conference of using his power and influence in order to do business. Of the many controversies about the Vardaskan secret service, the way it spends money is perhaps the biggest.

    Over the past eight years, Sašo Mijalkov never appeared in person to report about his agency to the parliamentary committee that is supposed to monitor it. Changes to the law have allowed the secret police to easily tap into citizens’ communication with little or no paperwork or oversight. Mijalkov controls the whole state. After they changed the law, the secret police gained a lot of power. They are allowed to tape people for 48 hours without any kind of court order or any written approval–only with a phone call to a judge.